DEAR CARRIE: My husband was hired at his current company with the stipulation that he would obtain a master's degree. The company agreed to reimburse us for the tuition costs, provided he maintained a certain grade-point average. He met that requirement and is one class away from completing the master's program.
Each time he submitted paperwork for reimbursement he had to check a box agreeing to pay back the money should he leave the company. We had no problem with this clause because he had no intention of leaving. If he lost his job, the company said it would waive the repayment requirement.
Unfortunately, his employer has decided to relocate to the other side of the country. My husband was offered a position, but we don't want to leave family and friends or uproot our children from their schools. The company has told employees that if they didn't relocate, they would be laid off. It hasn't announced a lay-off date yet, but my husband wants to be proactive in this challenging job market and start looking for a job. If he finds a new job before he's given a lay-off date, would he be responsible for repaying the tuition? He has tried to get a definitive answer, but his company isn't being forthcoming with information. -- School Daze
DEAR SCHOOL DAZE: Though the company's decision to relocate complicates the reimbursement issue, the matter still turns on a basic question: Would your husband's departure for a new job be tantamount to quitting?
An employee-rights attorney contends the circumstances wouldn't add up to a voluntary departure per se.
"While your husband may, in fact, decide to leave before either he became relocated or unemployed, that is more a matter of timing and not the real reason," said Alan Sklover of Sklover & Co. in Manhattan. "There really is no voluntary choice being made here."
A little background on what's at stake. Advanced degrees like your husband's could cost as much as $150,000, Sklover said.
"Wise employers" often invest in their best employees in a variety of ways, among them, paying for advanced education or training, as your husband's employer did for him, Sklover said.
When employers do so they expect a return on their investment.
"If . . . the employee soon afterward leaves the company, the employer does not get the return on investment it expected, and so feels cheated," Sklover said.
Your husband probably hasn't received a satisfactory answer from managers because they don't have one.
"Few people in a company -- and that includes human resources -- have the legal acumen or the corporate authority to make a decision on whether to require repayment," Sklover said. "And your husband may not have approached the right person."
He said your husband should contact a senior manager. And he suggested your spouse take the Three R's Approach in communicating with that person, preferably by email: Write with respect; ask for response in a reasonable amount of time and communicate his underlying reason for writing.
"A direct appeal made in good faith is always the best path to a direct answer made in good faith," he said.
If your husband's appeal to "the better angels," as Sklover calls them, doesn't work and his company insists he repay the tuition, his only option might be to take legal action. If so, he could be on solid ground.
"If it ever came down to it, a jury of your peers -- that is, your neighbors -- would also likely side with your husband, as well," he said, "because the decision -- even if not the timing -- was not a voluntary choice by your husband."
For more on state labor laws and fringe benefits go to http://bit.ly/11CMa9u